Written by Mel Palmer

What does it mean to be human? This question is one of the most fundamental inquiries of our existence.  At its heart, it is a question of identity – who are we? We want to know. It is a question that has both puzzled and inspired humanity for centuries. Reflections on this question, through the discipline of theological anthropology, inspired my creative artefact. A mosaic topped table entitled – ‘Space to be Truly Human’. The reason my reflections were centred in theological anthropology is simple: the human person can only be truly understood from a theological perspective.[1] Centuries ago, the Psalmist asked: “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?[2] He was asking about the relative importance of humanity in the midst of the rest of creation, but he was also asking our simple question: “What does it mean to be human?” For the answer to this question, the psalmist was looking in the right place. He looked to God. God is the creator of heaven and earth.  He is the maker of human-kind. It is nearly impossible to speak of humanity without looking to its creator. He is the only one who can tell us who we are. Theological anthropology is the right discipline to find the answer to this question. Let me explain to you what I know to be true, and how “Space to be Truly Human” reflects this.

Each aspect of the mosaic represents something of my current understanding of what it means to be human:


In the centre of the mosaic is the shape of a human person. This person is representative of Jesus, the true human, and also representative of the potential of all of humanity. Genesis tells us that humans are the only creatures who have been created in the image of God.[3] What a profound truth! Even without understanding exactly what ‘made in the image’ means, this truth communicates much: Humanity is unique in creation, and it is very special to its maker. Genesis does not explain what being made in the image means. It was surprising to discover that for centuries, theologians have tried to explain this by simply looking at what it is different about us in all creation. Is it substance?  Something we are?  It is function?  Something we do?  Is it the fact that we are relational? While there may be an element of truth in some or even all these things, it seems that all of these understandings have at times failed to recognise the truth that Jesus “is the image of the invisible God.”[4] In order for us understand what it means to be created in the image of God, we first need to look to the image – Jesus. By coming to earth as a human person, Jesus revealed to us what it means to be human. “Jesus is the fullest expression of what God intends humanity to be.”[5]  Grenz says, “At the heart of the Christian belief-mosaic is, of course, Christology.  Central to a truly biblically informed Christocentric theology is the affirmation that Jesus is the one who came to be the imago Dei and to establish the new humanity of those who confirmed to that image, in completion of what God intended as the human vocation from the beginning.”[6] From the beginning, this is what he intended. That is significant.  All people from Adam and Eve to us were intended to be like Jesus. This truth also reveals that Jesus is the standard of what it means to flourish as a human person. We are all human, but we aren’t all flourishing.



Above the human, you can see yellow radiating from the top of the mosaic down to the person. This yellow represents a number of things.  Firstly, it represents the source of created life and light.  The light that came into the world in the form of Jesus.[7]  Secondly it represents our relationship with God.  Calvin understood that “God chose to share himself in such a way that Adam’s being is incomplete without God’s own: direct communication with God was the source of life to Adam.”[8] This is true for all humans. He is the source of ongoing, true life for all of us. Jesus modelled this communion, this intimacy with God, in his humanity while he was here on earth.  We often read of Jesus finding quiet places to commune with His Father in prayer.[9]  “(Our) truest ‘self’ is only to be had in communion with God, its creator.”[10]  Our true humanity is found in relationship with God. For me, this yellow also represents the strength humans are given to overcome darkness and both step into and radiate this light. The Bible reveals that God doesn’t just give strength to his people, he is their strength.[11]



On the chest of the mosaic person is a dove.  This represents the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit is the one who, with Jesus, enables humanity to address the father as Abba, and empowers humanity to live a life that is fully human.”[12] Jesus showed us what it is like to live a life fuelled by the Spirit of God. Humanity, being made in God’s image, has the capacity to recognize and respond to God, but this was lost to us, and has only been restored in Christ (see ‘The Darkness’ below). Christ is the pattern and renovation of the image of God in us. The Christian life is then understood in terms of conformity to the person of Christ. The Spirit becomes the crucial person in this work; he is given to us for the purpose of uniting us to Christ and making us like him.[13]



You may have noticed earlier, I mentioned the person in the mosaic represents our ‘potential’ to be fully human. I say ‘potential’ because our ability to be truly human, as we were created to be, has been hampered by sin. Like the black ‘darkness’ seen in the mosaic, sin pushes in and tempts us from all angles. Sin refuses “to recognise the limits of self and its dependence on God for life and the flourishing of life.”[14] There is ample discussion and documentation in the Bible regarding the destructive impact of sin on people. Yet, at the same time, there is every indication that people remain “in God’s image”.”[15] Jesus was fully human and yet he was without sin.  This reveals that our sin does not define our humanity. Instead, it is a barrier to our full humanity, because it restricts our communion with God. As we have seen, being fully human requires us to live in communion with God. This means we need to be free of sin. The Bible reveals that cleansing and forgiveness of sin requires a sacrifice.[16]  A perfect, sinless sacrifice. Thankfully the God who gave us life always had a plan for this. Jesus was sinless and able to be that sacrifice. Jesus the true human, died, so that we once again have the freedom to be truly human.



The world at the bottom of the mosaic represents is the context we live – God’s wider creation. One day this world will be made new. While we still live in a world where sin and evil are present, Jesus humanity shows us what it means to live humanly in the context of a fallen world.[17] One day we will live as humans in a sin-free world. That is something to look forward to and then we may find there is more to being human than we realise. Cortez says, “This revelation of humanity is not entirely complete. We still await the eschatological realization of God’s full purposes for humanity. Although we see in Jesus what it means for a truly human person to live a God-oriented and Spirit-directed life, we have yet to see what it looks like when the people of God as a community live transformed lives in the midst of a redeemed and sin-free world. Theological anthropology’s knowledge of the human, then, is always bounded and chastened by the knowledge that it awaits this eschatological fulfilment. ”[18] What excitement and hope-filled anticipation this breathes.



Genesis tells us that humanity was created in His image so that that they might have dominion over creation.[19] Bird states the imago Dei is “the royal dominion given to humanity to rule over creation on God’s behalf.”[20] It would seem, however, that the words “so that” reveal this dominion to be a consequence of being made in his image, rather than the image itself. “An intentional consequence of this status,” says McKirland (referring to the imago Dei), “is having dominion which sets the human creature apart from the rest of creation.”[21] To be truly human is to royally rule, in a way that reflects God. The Bible uses royal language in other places to describe human beings:“You have made (man) a little lower than the heavenly beings and “crowned them with glory and honour.”  In Christ, we are adopted as children of the most high King. [22] Our royal position is represented in the picture by using the colour purple.



It is common for humans to interpret the idea of ‘rule’ through our sin-filled lens.  We translate it as authority and dominance. The Bible has other ideas. It is representation and servanthood. Jesus has made us “to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father.”[23] (italics mine). In the Old Testament, priests were anointed with oil.  Jesus anoints us.[24] Peter tells us that we, as redeemed humans, are a “chosen people, a royal priesthood.”[25]  I have represented this truth with a yellow drop on the head of the mosaic person.  As human priests, we host God and reflect the presence of God to the world.



Jesus came to earth to reveal God to us, and to reveal what it means to be truly human.  He has now left us with the responsibility to do that too.  As we have seen, He has anointed us and empowered us.  On the mosaic, we can see this with the open generous positioning of the human.  The arms are open – extended with gifts. “Hospitality is one way we become God’s welcome arms in a big and often hostile world.”[26] The heart represents the call to love people. A palm leaf represents the call to care for creation. 



On the person, there are shades of purple radiating out from the centre. This symbolises the transformation of the Holy Spirit – teaching us, convicting us, and shaping us to be more and more like Jesus. Jesus is our telos and those of us in Christ are becoming more and more like him.[27] He is the image after which we were all created. One day, in the eschaton, we will be fully like him – resurrected and restored.



It was almost an accident that this artefact ended up being a table – but I love that it is. This part of the artefact, to me, speaks of our ministry and mission. Like open arms, tables are places of hospitality.  They are places of connection, where we sit and we share our lives.

I can use “Space to be Truly Human” to live out my reflective purposes in community with others. God calls us to reflect Him to others, and to share his story. As I sit over a drink with a fellow human being I could ask them what they see.  I could speak to them about my journey. I could share with them the good news of the God who loves us all and the glorious desires and has for us as humans.  Our hope for what it means to be human is in Him.



On a more personal note, the broken pieces of this mosaic represent my ministry.  For years now I have served in a ministry that bought me alive.  It made me feel truly human. But after a tough season, which led to my resigning from that position, it has felt like my ministry in this world is broken.  I feel broken. Being reminded of the truths of what it means to be human has been good for the soul. I have been reminded that God can take that which has been broken and transform it into something beautiful. He redeems and restores.

As I built this artefact, some pieces didn’t stick. This is what it is like for us as humans too. God teaches us and works on us, but because we still live in a broken world it doesn’t always stick. I realise that at times I have worried that this is happening to me.  That God’s work won’t stick.  But who is God?  He is faithful. For my little artefact I patiently re-stuck the pieces.  How much more patient is God?  He promises that He will faithfully complete the work he has started. [28] I look forward to using my “Space to be Human” as a place to sit, reflect, and commune with God.



Finally, my mosaic is one of childlike simplicity. In regards to humanity, and to faith, I feel like a child in so many ways. The simplicity of this mosaic reminds me that we are invited to come to God like children. He is our Abba. I’m reminded of a section from Max Lucado’s children’s book “You are Special”.

 “I’m not sure I understand.”

Eli smiled. “You will, but it will take time.     

For now, come to see me every day and let me remind you how much I care.” [29]

God calls me to do just that.

Cortez reminds us that: “Theological Anthropology is … challenging because it is a task that is never complete; indeed, it is a task that cannot be completed. Although we will often speak of theological anthropology as trying to “understand” the human person, we much acknowledge that there is a sense in which this will never be fully accomplished.” [30] ‘Space to be Truly Human’ is an attempt to capture the essence of my current understanding of what it means to be human. Conveying all it is to be human in one simple artefact is challenging.  Like us it is imperfect, but may this space that reminds me of the source and content of my humanity.  May it be a space for communion with God and conversation with others. May it remind me that the space to be truly human is right here on earth.  In communion with God.  Led by the Holy Spirit.  Representing and reflecting God in the world.




Bird, Michael F. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.

Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015.

Canlis, Julie. “What does it mean to be human? John Calvin’s surprising answer,” Theology in Scotland, vol. XVI, no. 2 (2009): 93 – 106.

Cortez, Marc. ReSourcing Theological Anthropology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018.

Cortez, Marc. Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2009.

Grentz, Stanley J. “Jesus as the Imago Dei: Image-of-God Christology and the Non Linearity of Theology,” JETS 47/4 (2004): 617-28

Kilner, John. “The Image of God, the Need for God, and Bioethics,” Christian Bioethics 23 (3) (2017): 261 – 282.

Lucado, Max. You Are Special. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1997.

McKirland, Christa L.  Image of God and Divine Presence: A Critique of Gender Essentialism. Unpublished, 13.

Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991.

Peppiatt, Lucy. “Spirit Christology and Mission.” University of Otago Doctoral Thesis, 2010.

Treier, Daniel J. Evangelical Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2019.



[1] Cortez, Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed (Edinburgh:T & T Clark, 2009), Loc 59.

[2] Psalm 8:4

[3] Genesis 1:26-27

[4] Col 1:15

[5] Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 146.

[6] Stanley J. Grenz, “Jesus as the Imago Dei: Image-of-God Christology and the Non Linearity of Theology,” JETS 47/4 (2004): 628.

[7] John 8:12

[8] Julie Canlis, “What does it mean to be human? John Calvin’s surprising answer,” Theology in Scotland, vol. XVI, no. 2 (2009): 94-95.

[9] See Matt 14:23, Mark 1:35, Mark 14:35, Luke 5:16, Luke 6:12

[10] Canlis, “What does it mean to be human?” 103

[11] John Kilner, “The Image of God, the Need for God, and Bioethics,” Christian Bioethics 23 (3) (2017): 267.

(See Psalm 28:2, 46:1, 81:1, 84:5, 89:17)

[12] Davidson, I., Theologizing the Human Jesus, p.147. in Lucy Peppiatt, “Spirit Christology and Mission.” University of Otago Doctoral Thesis, 2010.

[13] Spence, A., Christ’s Humanity and Ours in Persons Divine and Human, in Lucy Peppiatt, “Spirit Christology and Mission.” (University of Otago Doctoral Thesis, 2010), 84.

[14] Lucy Peppiatt, “Spirit Christology and Mission.” (University of Otago Doctoral Thesis, 2010), 155.

[15] Kilner, “The Image of God, the Need for God, and Bioethics,” 265.

[16] See Hebrews 10:1-18

[17] Marc Cortez, ReSourcing Theological Anthropology. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2018), Chapter 5.

[18] Cortez, Theological Anthropology, Loc 104.

[19] Genesis 1:26

[20] Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 2003), 694

[21] Christa L. McKirland. Image of God and Divine Presence: A Critique of Gender Essentialism (unpublished), 13.

[22] Eph 1:5

[23] Rev 1:6

[24] 2 Cor 1:21-22. See also 1 John 2:20

[25] 1 Peter 2:9

[26] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 162.

[27] 2 Cor 2:18

[28] Phil 1:6

[29] Max Lucado, You Are Special (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1997)

[30] Cortez, Theological Anthropology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Loc 99. (kindle version)